Cancer is one of the biggest health issues of all time. 1.3 million people die of cancer every year in Europe.
Not a single European has not had a family member, friend or relation taken away by this disease. Yet, 40% of cancers could be prevented by a greater sharing of patient data and treatment information between member states, easier access to cancer screening and more widespread prevention strategies. In light of this and recently more involved in health policy, the European Union has decided to tackle this matter and make cancer a top priority.
Since September 2020, the European Parliament has been working on its parliamentary report, via its specially formed BECA Committee, to strengthen and improve the fight against cancer. As this process comes to an end, it is time to reflect on what has been done.
With a view to publishing the most scientifically informed report possible, the BECA Committee met regularly, held hearings with a variety of experts to identify the key challenges of the disease and challenged the relevant EU commissioner on what could be done. From prevention to diagnosis, treatment and post-cancer consequences for survivors, extensive research has been conducted as part of the special committee’s mandate.
As the meetings progressed, BECA Committee members expressed clear priorities on what they believe should be included in the report.
The next key milestone in the committee’s short history comes on 9 December when MEPs vote on the keenly-awaited report.
The committee vote will be followed by a plenary vote next month. The votes mark the end of the committee’s one year mandate.
If every committee member, if not every European, agrees on the urgency of implementing an efficient and comprehensive plan to fight cancer, there is, however, rather less consensus as to how this should come about.
The main issues identified and abundantly discussed by MEPs include the “right to be forgotten” for cancer survivors, protecting them from future insurance discrimination.Other key issues include thee equitable supply of life saving cancer medicines for all EU member states, greater funding and time dedicated to childhood cancer research and better prevention.
Discussions have demonstrated that better prevention has been one of the most contentious issues among the members of the Committee, notably with regards to tobacco harm reduction and alcohol.
The EU has set out its beating cancer plan but there is a split as to how much regulation should apply to alcohol, such as labelling to inform citizens of the potential damage consumption can cause.
On the tobacco side, there is no denying 40% of cancer deaths are preventable and that up to 20% of fatalities are tobacco related. In light of this, the EU Plan supports the ambitious target of achieving a “tobacco-free generation” by 2040 and includes various proposals to encourage smokers to give up the habit. The Plan is more conservative, though, regarding the role e-cigarettes could play in helping people quit smoking than was initially communicated by the Commission.
Studies from public health institutions and acclaimed medical journals, including the French National Cancer
Institute, have consistently found that vaping is less harmful than traditional cigarettes. So their inclusion, in some form, in the BECA plan was somewhat inevitable.
Yet, several MEPs and scientists have repeatedly argued that it is Utopian to imagine that by prohibiting tobacco and alternative products such as e-cigarettes, smokers will automatically stop smoking. On the contrary, they advocate for a harm reduction approach which stipulates that policymakers should instead aim to minimise harms through careful legislative changes which nudge the largest number of people possible towards sustainable lifestyle changes.
According to a survey of MEPs, the majority of members believe alternative nicotine products are less harmful than smoking – with between 70% – 94% believing vaping, heated tobacco and nicotine pouches are less harmful.
Tobacco harm reduction has garnered cross-party support in the special committee and Parliament generally. From the EPP, Renew to the Left, MEPs have come forward, sharing their experiences with e-cigarettes and calling on the committee rapporteur and commission to take “a pro-science approach” on the matter.
However with the S&D party vehemently opposing such products, the prospect of reaching a compromise seems impossible. Whilst the products’ risk assessment remains under scrutiny, all MEPs seem to agree that flavours should be in the scope of any restrictions. Their potential attractiveness to young people has proven to be a point of consensus. Surprisingly, a recent study concluded that there was “no evidence that flavoured e-liquid use specifically is associated with tobacco smoking uptake”.
Will the coalition of scientifically-attuned MEPs supporting these products concede ground on issues around flavours as part of the negotiations? Only time will tell.
It is worth noting, however, that the completion of the committee’s mandate, on December 23,and Parliament’s vote will not mark the end of the debate on cancer. As the Commission is keen to reach agreement on its cancer plan, cooperation from member states and their national cancer agencies will be necessary. Some member states and citizens may not be entirely satisfied with some of the Plan’s provisions and may seek to go down a different route.
It should not be forgotten, after all, that public health is a member state competence.